On Wednesday morning, under the metal awning of a temporary barn, six Appomattox County High School students were wrestling more than a dozen goats into a pen. Amid the cacophony of near-constant bleating and the incessant clanging of metal, the students guided the animals through a bright blue holding corral.
Segmented into slots for the animals to be weighed, assessed and treated with medicine, each student worked their assigned job with ease.
It was a well-practiced routine, one that didn’t betray the tragedy that struck the program just seven months prior.
After a barn fire killed several animals and reduced the structure to ash, the Appomattox Future Farmers of America program finally can see hope on the horizon.
Peyton Smith, 15, drew liquid from a re-purposed plastic water bottle into an oversize syringe and passed it along to Makaila Collins, 15, who wrangled the treatment into the goat’s reluctant mouth.
Once freed from the confines of the corral, the goats fled into the pasture of the Appomattox FFA Alumni Land Laboratory, 25 acres of scrubby grass and holding pens.
Tucked about a half mile behind Appomattox County High School, the February fire destroyed the main barn and some of the surrounding lot.
In the months following the devastation, the community rallied around the program, lending support and donations to a steadily growing build-a-barn fund, hoping to finance a brand-new facility for the Appomattox FFA in the coming year.
Next Saturday, the fourth annual Farm Girls Vintage Faire is donating the proceeds from its $3 entrance fee to the build-a-barn fund. Bonnie Swanson, owner of Evergreen Lavender Farm and one of the event organizers, said they wanted to support the future of Appomattox agriculture.
Last year, the faire’s vendors drew more than 600 people with their vintage and vintage-inspired furniture, salvage, jewelry and other wares. This year, in a new location at the historic Clover Hill Village, Swanson hopes to draw an even bigger crowd.
Swanson said the Appomattox FFA will have a booth at the event, with students fundraising and promoting awareness of their program.
“It’s not just about us,” Swanson said. “We have come together to do this, and we feel like its an important part of the Appomattox community.”
Despite a “total loss” in the wake of the fire — the barn was uninsured, and the FFA lost eight animals, feed, equipment and supplies — Ed McCann, an agriculture teacher at Appomattox County High School, said with the community’s support, the program is on the rebound.
At the Appomattox land lab, in the footprint of the lost barn, stands a temporary solution — a metal structure, meant to house equipment and supplies until the FFA Alumni can raise the more than $100,000 needed for a new facility.
With 149 students enrolled in the FFA chapter and in agriculture classes — about 22% of the school — it was a loss felt across the student population.
Some students lost their show animals in the fire, as well as sheep in their lambing stages that had been penned in the barn for safety.
Makaila pointed out a goat, the aptly named “Crispy,” who escaped with singed ears.
Ian Godsey, 16, has a favorite goat — dubbed “Billie Eilish,” after popular American pop singer-songwriter — who also survived the fire.
McCann laughed at the references, and hurried to add he had no say in the names.
“The kids do everything,” McCann said. The goats that required triage and first-aid were handled often and given nicknames that eventually stuck.
“They’re important. They’re hallmarks,” McCann said. “Something that reminds us of [the fire], but also a success story.”
The land lab was purchased in the 1980s, and serves to give students in the FFA program hands-on experience in animal science and farm management.
Currently raising goats, sheep and pigs, McCann said they operate as a “food animal program,” with the goal of teaching children where their food comes from and how to create a safe and viable food supply for the community.
Though a core group of breeding animals remains, the offspring of the livestock are marketed and sold via different channels. For many of the students, said McCann, this is the reason they come to school. They care for the animals everyday, everything from socialization, farm maintenance and health care.
“The fire was tough. It was devastating. A big part of their high school experience was gone forever, and it happened just like that,” McCann said. “Kids are resilient, we know that. But to say it hasn’t been without its challenges wouldn’t be true.”
Though students have adapted and overcome, he said they still find themselves reaching for tools and equipment they lost in the fire. At the same time, they are trying to find the silver lining.
“There are always unexpected things that happen in life, it’s been a good lesson for all of us to remember that things happen and it’s not necessarily what happens, it’s how you react to it,” McCann said. “We’ve tried to use this as an opportunity to learn and grow.”
Plans for the facility currently are being drawn up by the FFA alumni, with hopes to break ground by 2020. They are planning for a much larger facility, with space to house animals, expand the cattle program and have an indoor seating and teaching area.
The student wish lists are a little more concise.
Makaila, whose family owns a farm, said she plans on staying in the program until she graduates, and wants to continue working with animals in the future. She just wants a bathroom on site. Other students echoed desires for air conditioning and heat, maybe even a water fountain.
“The fire definitely was devastating to everyone, but I think with the new barn everything is running smoothly again. It’s doing good now,” Makaila said.
Brandon Phelps, 18, has been in the FFA since he was in middle school, and has been closely involved both before and after the fire.
He called it a “very hard loss,” especially with the death of almost all of the year’s show animals. Though the program still is in the process of bouncing back, Phelps said even if it won’t be while he is still in school, he hopes they get the new barn soon.
Mary Beth Wingfield, president of the FFA Alumni Association, said the new facilities will be designed to keep the program going for the next 50 to 100 years.
“We really want to look into the future when we put this new facility to work,” Wingfield said.
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.